Anumita Roychowdhury is Executive Director for research and advocacy of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a New Delhi-based public interest research and advocacy organisation for sustainable and equitable development. In a wide-ranging conversation with Faizal Khan, Roychowdhury spells out clearly the inevitability of a non-motorised transport code in India through shocking figures and revealing facts.
Q. One of the measures recommended by CSE following the Global Burden of Disease Report recently is scaling up non-motorised transport. Would you elaborate?
We cannot deal with our air pollution and public health crisis if we kill our zero emitters. Certainly not now when the new Global Burden of Disease estimates for India has shocked and stunned the world. It has ranked air pollution as the fifth leading cause of death in India. About 620,000 premature deaths a year from air pollution-related diseases virtually works out to be 80 deaths per hour! To this is added the loss of 18 million healthy years of life due to illness. Our cities are not liveable anymore.
We are shocked but not surprised. We know from our air quality data that more than half of our urban population breathes unacceptable level of pollution. Smaller and more obscure cities are among the most polluted in the country. Walking and cycling are part of the solution. The scale of this practice is still very substantial in our cities. This is an opportunity. If this is protected, scaled up and leveraged with proper urban and transportation planning and design we can see a major turn around and contain the ill effects of motorisation.
Vehicles are the most rapidly growing source of pollution in our cities. But understand our strength — on a nationwide basis, the share of walking is 16 to 57 per cent of all trips depending on the nature and size of the city. Even in the capital city of Delhi one-third of daily commuters walk to work. Delhi has the second highest numbers of walkers and highest numbers of cyclists – this is our rich but endangered legacy. Do you know there are still some stretches in Delhi where the numbers of cycle trips are higher than car trips? It is astounding that in stretches like Uttam Nagar and Subhash Nagar on Shivaji Marg, and Jyoti Nagar East etc on Loni Road the numbers of cycle and cycle rickshaw outnumber cars. This is the reality in this car manic city today. The compact design of many cities – built on a human scale, has given us this advantage. Modern urban planning and design will have to respect this legacy and carry this forward to meet the public health objectives. Any deviation to promote car-centric infrastructure will lock up enormous energy and pollution and enhance health and environmental risks.
Q. Do you think there is enough public awareness to influence action on non-motorised transport?
It is ironical that though the walkers and cyclists are the urban majority they remain invisible as a silent majority. It is inexplicable how in electoral politics where numbers matter their numbers do not count. In most of our cities the share of car trips is just about 5-14 per cent of all trips. Yet transport and urban infrastructure investments are geared to facilitate car movement. This is extremely disturbing at a time when our cities are in the grip of paralyzing mobility crisis and pollution. It is unacceptable that people are forced to walk and cycle in extremely unsafe and hostile conditions, in constant conflict with motorised traffic and are easy victims to crashes and accidents.
The silver lining is that we are beginning to witness public anger now. At least in big cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Kolkata, Chennai, and a few others public voice is getting sharper. Walkathon and cyclathon are giving out messages. Civil society groups are coming forward to carry out walkability surveys to raise awareness about the state of walkways and the right of pedestrians. But these platforms are still nebulous. We need more active and aggressive public action.
Q. What about the planners and lawmakers? Do they consider NMT as a vital element of an urban dwelling?
This is a very serious and unpardonable missing link in our urban design and planning priorities. It is interesting that the policy language has changed considerably in the recent times to bring walking and cycling within the policy mandate. Our National Urban Transport Policy and National Habitat Missions Standards for Transport have taken on board principles of NMT. The city mobility plans have included this in the action agenda. But in reality the change is very small. Massive road building and road widening projects have been initiated in cities but such interventions have not been utilized to scale up walking and cycling network. We are planning and designing for vehicles, not people.
The policy-makers don’t understand that even 50 per cent increase in kilometre travelled by public transport will lead to massive increases in the quantum of walking. Roads will have to be planned with more space for walking. As all public transport trips end and begin with walk trips the emerging public systems Metro, BRT, upgraded buses cannot work optimally if these are not supported by a good pedestrian network.
It might surprise many but India does have a plethora of laws and by-laws related to road safety, road infrastructure, pedestrian protection, and urban planning that have bearing on pedestrians. But laws are fragmented and do not add up to effectively promote pedestrianisation or protect pedestrians and their rights with any degree of stringency. Currently, laws cannot even prevent loss of walking space to roads for vehicles. Communities are not involved in decision-making on road infrastructure.
Unfortunately, obsession with seamless, signal-free travel for motorised vehicles through flyovers, expressways and elevated ways, is disrupting direct shortest routes of the walkers and cyclists and increasing distances and travel time for them. Such pro-car urban and road design is making people the captive users of personal vehicles. Cities need to prioritise walkers and cyclists and accord human dignity and respect, provide legitimate and well-designed space that is walkable and cyclable.
Q. How do you see the future for NMT in India?
I am an optimist. Though the scale of change is small today the direction of change is important. Along with the National Urban Transport Policy and National Habitat Missions Standards for Transport at the national level we are noticing grass root action in cities. Delhi has come up with the street design guidelines which will be the basis of all road approval and redevelopment projects. The Indian Road congress guidelines have undergone significant amendments which is the basis of all road designs and approval across the country. Other cities including Hyderabad, Bangalore are coming up with their own street design guidelines.
It is however worrying to see how despite these policy filters the implementation gets subverted. The roads happen but not the walking and cycling infrastructure according to the design guidelines, or for that matter the stringent laws to protect pedestrian rights. This demands strong public campaigns and policy push.
Q. What about walkability? Because that is denied due to the stress on giving more space to motor vehicles?
Walking is a harrowing experience on Indian roads. Pedestrians are victims of neglect. They account for over half of all accident fatalities in Indian cities. The latest National Crime records Bureau has exposed that Delhi has the dubious distinction of highest pedestrian fatalities in road accidents in the country. Big cities with higher walk and cycle trips as well as high motorised traffic show very high accident rates. Ill-designed walkways and shrinking walk space, unsafe crossings force people to walk in intense conflict with the vehicles. It is ironical that despite high share of walk trips our cities are not walkable. Even where we have walking and cycling infrastructure the enforcement is very poor. Cyclists prefer to stay on the motorised and congested roads than get into the cycle lane where two-wheelers intrude at high speed endangering them. There is no penalty on the motor vehicle owners for encroaching into NMT lanes.
The bigger worry is that even when we try to mend and create new infrastructure these are treated as “beautification” and not as usable assets. As a result, our audit of new NMT infrastructure in Delhi shows a great deal of design deficiency. The devil is in the detail. For instance, during the Commonwealth Games Delhi did create about 40 km of new NMT tracks. They look pretty but in many stretches these are not usable because of design faults. The lanes have remained discontinuous. In many places the design itself has created barrier — entry into dedicated lanes is obstructed. Adequate exit points have not been provided at frequent intervals. No traffic calming at the entry of the lanes, especially at the traffic junctions. Sharp bends in the lane make them dangerous. Even the minimum width is not maintained throughout the corridor and so on. The message is – don’t do them indifferently, do them right.
Q. How can disincentives for motorised vehicles be created in India? With the Ministry of Urban Development contemplating congestion charges, how do you see it being implemented?
Make personal vehicle owners pay for the real costs of owning and using vehicles and the damage that they cause to environment and public health. Remove the hidden subsidies in terms of subsidized fuel, free parking, road usage for a pittance and so on. This demands greening of the fiscal regime in which we tax the bad to fund the good. Congestion pricing is only one tool among many. We need a whole new range of fiscal and parking reforms. It is truly bizarre that today our cities tax the buses higher than the cars; diesel prices are higher for buses than cars. We will have to rationalize all these to give the right fiscal signals to change behaviour.
Q. How can NMT find enough voice so as to become a development paradigm in India?
We will have to build awareness about the overall welfare including health and environmental benefits that is possible in a well-designed, compact and a livable city. That will create community stake in the new urban design. Only then the voice of walkers, cyclists and public transport users in our cities can make or break governments.
The government should mandate pedestrian plans and make it conditional to infrastructure funding. Investments must be linked with explicit pedestrian and cycling plans. Engineering and environmental guidelines for walkways and their implementation must be made mandatory in all cities. Ensure these guidelines are incorporated by all road building agencies. The relevant laws will have to be harmonised and strengthened for more direct legal protection of pedestrian space and rights. We need a comprehensive Road users act for targeted pedestrianisation; segregation of space by users; system of penalty to prevent encroachment in pedestrian space; prevent usurpation of pedestrian space for motorised traffic without proper justification. Urban local bodies must implement walkability audits of pedestrian ways cycle lanes. Public transport plans must include pedestrian plan for multimodal integration. We need zero tolerance policy for accidents. This menu of action needs support. Our right to walk is not negotiable.